When I blogged about violence on reservations, it attracted a New York Times reporter. “I am working on an article about the prevalence of violence against women in Native American communities and the various efforts by Native American law enforcement and the federal government to address the problem.” I sent him my long article about this subject, which I hope to publish someplace and did post on this blog and on iNewp.com. We spent a good part of the morning talking. He had not googled to find out about me, but I had googled him.
It soon became clear that he was looking for a sensational story. He had no idea about the cat’s cradle of jurisdictions on a reservation nor what distinguishes Blackfeet as a tribe, like their form of government or the Baker Massacre or what buffalo meant to them. He thought the photo of Heart Butte I sent (the one at the top of the page) was “beautiful” but no sense that this reservation once included the part of the Rocky Mountains that became Glacier National Park. He grew up in Fresno.
Same old, same old. Plenty of Hollywood images, grade school level assumptions, and just plain blanks. Too much please-the-informant (me) with a quick readjusting of assumptions. Too much put-down-the-reporter impatience on my part. I feel a little guilty now. Not much.
Among the things I knew that he didn’t was that reporters come through here all the time, along with academics, bureaucrats, photographers, and so on. They are more numerous in summer. We’re not much impressed. A thing I know that he didn’t know I knew is that reporters only do the dirty work of asking questions. The power is in the editors, who will assign a point of view and outcome before the reporter ever starts and completely rewrite the story once it is brought home. This reporter seemed to think that the New York Times could go up against the FBI and make them toe the mark. I read the NYTimes online — used to subscribe to the book review when there was one. I have watched the Times shudder, stumble and shrink, just like all the other newspapers and publishers. What they need is something to increase circulation — NOT a confrontation with the FBI.
Another thing reporters don’t think of is that reservations are not “print cultures.” The NYTimes does not register. Few people sit down to go over every page in the GF Tribune, which is the biggest regional paper. (They might hit sports.) They are very aware that the local newspaper is controlled by a white family in Cut Bank, not notably Indian friendly but slowly beginning to be Indian aware since so many enrolled people have been elected to the county commission and so on. The radios, including the local tribal station which is run by the mayor, are always on and so are the television sets, but the real news comes by word-of-mouth.
The reporter was after a perfect case that would reveal that the FBI does not investigate murders on reservations. He didn’t want Marie Heavyrunner’s case after all because arrests have been made. (He doesn’t know that an arrest is only the beginning of a new phase.) “Perfect” meant that I would be able to produce documents and witnesses who could show that evidence existed for a murder that the FBI had failed to pursue. The reporter, of course, would then muster the power of the press. Did I know of any such cases? Off the top of my head?
That’s when I decided I’d get into my two-box card file of obits and pull all the ones that were murder or suicide or simply undetermined, though most of those last will turn out to be tragic but not criminal. This is rough country with dangerous jobs and a lot of alcoholism and diabetes. But also it is a place where people still have nomadism in their blood and no particular reason to stay home. Marie evidently died in the summer, but no one missed her until late October. I blogged the list and will try to keep it current. Three new cards yesterday, only one undetermined.
I have no desire to draw the interest of “gangs” (2,700,000 hits on Google. One in 2009 at the NY Times. A good YouTube story here:
Not by the NY Times — by Al Jazeera. (Not about Blackfeet, but Sioux, not so different.) So I thought I would try using “The Wire,” the much-praised series about Baltimore, as a way of talking about realities. But the reporter thought “The Wire” was not real. “Journalism is about facts that can be proven with print evidence,” he said. Video narrative is too easy to falsify. Right. Unlike print. Sure. Where are my card files? But even it is GF Tribune obits, not the “real story.” The old-fashioned idea is that if it’s in print, it’s true. Aren’t we over that yet?
The fifth year of “The Wire” is about the media. ALL the episodes are about the shortage of money; the ubiquity of bribes; and how that shapes institutions and politics. I tried to talk to this reporter about how when money is short, there are economies of secrets and sex, but he couldn’t get the concept, even though he was wanting me to tell him “secret” things and promising not to let anyone know he had talked to me. He doesn’t understand that in small towns and on reservations there is no such thing as keeping thing secret. The struggle is to keep them accurate.
“The Wire” was mostly written by people who have been “in the trenches” as teachers and street cops, BUT it was some years ago and it was in Baltimore which is different from here, different from itself over time — one of the points of the story. I’m sure most people who watch are not aware of any of this. I’m also confident that the ONLY way to get people to understand a world they would never enter and don’t want to is by telling them stories. They don’t react to statistics and, anyway, one of the problems of all this is “juking the stats,” meaning redefining categories, “losing” records, or even simply failing to record them in the first place.
After a while I had exhausted the supply of rez stories I wanted to tell and anyway, he didn’t much want to hear the long explanations, so I reached for the most shocking story I know. It’s not about the rez, but about Great Falls where a guy named Bar Jonah showed up, a squat little madman who had served time in Massachusetts for capturing and tormenting boys and then had been told to get out of town. So he came here, because here no one knew him and it was the wild west. By the time people figured it out, he had hung boys from a hook in his kitchen (one escaped), tortured them, butchered them, cooked them, and served them to the neighbors. He never was convicted, because the mother of the alleged victim refused to admit her son was dead. Police found plenty of reasons to keep him in custody until he died of a heart attack. The reporter didn’t want to hear about it. I admit it was totally irrelevant. I never did tell him how a damaged young Blackfeet woman had her dead autistic child in the trunk of her car for months and months. I’m sure she didn’t mean to kill him.
Bob Scriver used to say a person was much more likely to get away with a totally outrageous crime than an ordinary crime, because people wouldn’t be able to get their heads around it. The reporter and his editor already knew what sort of article they wanted and reality could only get through that filter if something changed their filters.
When I googled this reporter, I discovered an amazing website called “dowser” after those water-finding sticks that point to underground aquifers. www.dowser.org
We’re living through a global social change renaissance. Millions of people are building organizations and social enterprises, attacking problems with new ideas and models.
But most of this activity is hidden. The news is better at telling us what went wrong yesterday than what’s being done to make tomorrow better.
At Dowser, we present the world through a ‘solution frame,’ rather than a ‘problem frame.’ We’re interested in the practical and human elements of social innovation: Who’s solving what and how. We want to know how people come up with ideas, how they put them into practice, how they pay the bills, and what fuels their fire.
Hey, NOW we’re cookin’ with gas! I had ended my article about violence against women on the rez with a few sentences of suggestions. I should expand that.